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The Need to Be Listened To

What to expect from online therapy sessions during the coronavirus pandemic.

OrnaW / Pixabay
Source: OrnaW / Pixabay

by Fred Griffin, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who spent the past 45 years listening to patients in my consulting room. In the new normal, I meet in what some might call a virtual room in virtual space. "Virtual" usually means "existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact." But my patients and I are finding this experience to be very real.

We all have a basic human need to connect.

Recently, I listened to an NPR podcast of a Fresh Air interview of the orchestral conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin by Terry Gross. When the Philadelphia Orchestra could no longer play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to a concert hall filled with listeners, it performed to an empty hall. This performance was streamed live to an audience who were able to comment about their listening experience in real-time.

For the orchestra, the silence in the concert hall at the performance's end was shocking, unsettling. But when the conductor viewed the online audience's comments, he found them "beautiful" and moving. "I just see it as another manifestation of the need to feel part of a community when we share great art together," Nézet-Séguin said.

Though not in person, a unique kind of "conversation" occurred that bridged the distance. My guess is that the online listeners—even at a distance—found some comfort in knowing this piece of music was something that had survived many difficult pasts, economic depressions, and epidemics for more than 200-years and into the present and future. Something larger than them that is lasting. Being closely listened to by an attuned therapist can generate something of this comfort.

Surprisingly, distance therapy does not feel remote.

Based on my experience, you should expect your online therapy can be just as effective as being in the same room with your therapist. You both can meaningfully focus on what you are going through during this COVID-19 crisis. I have found that time is not best spent talking about the politics of the pandemic or engaging in seeking advice already available on the Internet. Although problem-solving may be part of the work, a therapist can also be helpful to you by listening closely to what your unique experience is like during this time.

My patients speak about the fear of infection, mourning about lost people and happy times, outrage, a sense of helplessness. At times, people can feel nearly immobilized by anxiety. Your therapist can help you feel understood and emotionally contained. Your very real feelings need not impair your capacity to act in your own best interests and to get through this difficult time with a hope for a better tomorrow.

Maintain perspective and hope.

For many, the pandemic brings up terrible feelings and memories of other painful times in their lives. Your therapist can help you find a useful perspective. Rather than becoming stuck in the helplessness of a past painful moment or feeling, keep in mind that there is a future. And one that holds potential for you and others.

Our ability to adapt cultivates our capacity to connect.

For some time, I have worked with certain patients by phone. My experience is that the need to listen and to be listened to draws from and cultivates certain capacities we all have to be and feel a part of a conversation with others.

Find your way to connect with others. Your need to communicate can transcend any limitations of distance therapy. In this past week, many of my patients seem better able to tell me what is going on inside themselves and in their worlds. At the same time, my capacity to take in and grasp what is being communicated seems to have expanded and deepened.

A new level of sensibility is developing, generating an even deeper understanding and sense of connection in the treatments. We human beings are adaptive creatures. When deprived of our usual ways of meaningfully engaging with others, we find a way.

Finally, if you know someone who's becoming isolated, encourage them to discover and pursue their own ways.

Fred L. Griffin, M.D., is a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist in Dallas. He is on the faculty of the Dallas Psychoanalytic Center and is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical School. His book, Creative Listening and the Psychoanalytic Process, explores the clinical uses of literary fiction.

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